Monday, January 31, 2011

R.I.P. John Barry

I expect quite a few people will be posting title sequences from James Bond films, so here's something different.

The Bond Band is a 12 piece band, including six horns, who do a pretty good job of recreating that wonderful, lush John Barry sound. According their website, they are available for birthdays, weddings, parties and corporate events. I'd guess that this clip comes from the latter, judging by the pathetic response to this wonderful performnace:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Origins of Derek - Part Two

If you're new to this blog, click here to understand the background to this post. If you don't have time to do that, the short answer is that these are extracts from the diaries of a civil servant called Derek.

25th April, 1955

'This is my first journal. I am keeping it so that I may have a durable record of my thoughts, experiences and views, to read when I am wrinkled and grey and full of years.

I am a student at a technical college, where I am studying for a General Certificate of Education. My age is twenty-two. Since 1952 I had been recovering from Pott's Disease, which is tuberculosis of the spine. Rather than that I should sit around idle, I have been encouraged to get on with my education.'

If I'd had the good sense to read Derek's diaries in chronological order, I would have realised why he was such a hypochondriac, panicking at the slightest twinge of pain or palpitation of the heart. Being struck down with such a debilitating illness at the age of 19 must have been the defining moment in Derek's life.

In a footnote written in the 1980s, Derek writes that:

'Because of ill health, I was not able to work for four years; and they were prime years; and the result was a feeling of worthlessness - as though there were no place for me.'

What sort of person would Derek have become if he hadn't contracted Pott's disease? Would he have still married Brenda? Would he have become a Mormon?

'During the dinner-hour, we (the students) sat on the lawn and talked of God. They were quite surprised to discover that I am a "Mormon". (N.B. I joined the church in July 1954) Lorraine wanted to know how many wives I had. Uninformed girl! She also stated that she believed the New Testament but not the Old. How can people worship half a God?

To accept God is peace of mind, but to accept biology only leads to wondering and the more one wonders, the more sleep one loses. Someday God will speak to all men in a voice that cannot be denied, and them the edifice of Darwinism will crumble to the ground, and become dust beneath the feet of truth. I hope I'm there to see it. My gosh - I do sound intolerant.'

But one of the most appealing things about Derek is his intellectual curiosity. He was a voracious reader and an obsessive collector of secondhand books, covering a wide spectrum of subjects. It is to Derek's credit that he didn't try to maintain his religious faith by closing his mind to other ideas.

28th April 1955

'Introspection is a dangerous habit when indulged in daily. It saps one's spiritual strength, weakens one's will and turns one into a cynic. It is the mark of a lonely man and springs from fear. The introspective man needs to be loved day by day, year by year; but first he must find someone to love and understand him. Fortunately I have Brenda, but how strong is she? How long can I expect her to bear my moods and selfishness with patience?'

Tuesday May 10th 1955

'Brenda has promised me a kiss.'

Friday May 13th, 1955

'I phoned Brenda tonight. We are passing through one of our peaceful periods when passions rest and harmony prevails. This morning, while she was ironing, she looked at the calendar and said "Ha! Ha! - Friday the thirteenth! Wonder what will happen today?" She then turned back to her ironing and found that she had scorched her best jumper.'

Saturday May 14th, 1955

'I am full of hatred: for myself, for my fellows, for everything. And why? Because there is something lacking in my make-up. I have no hope for myself. Poor Brenda! Why can't you leave me alone that I might utterly destroy myself? Why can't you realise that I am mad? Your love is wasted and it can only bring you sorrow. I know myself too well to give you any hope. All I want to do is dissolve and become nothing.'

Thursday May 26th, 1955

'I rose late and went to cast my vote at the General Election. Later, I took Brenda to a concert at the Town Hall. Horror of horrors! We were a week early. We hid our chagrin and went to the News Theatre to watch some cartoons. While we were in there, we ate a bag of bacon sandwiches; so, strangely enough, did the young couple sitting next to us.

After the show, we went and sat under a tree in the churchyard and quarelled. I was in one of my awkward moods: Brenda would not let me kiss her because she had a cold. I shouted at her. Then we were both silent. After a while I apologized and we went to "Ernies", a very ritzy restaurant. We had a mixed grill and I explained the "celestial order" to her.

We then left "Ernies" and went back to the churchyard and did a little hugging. Then we parted. We shall not be seeing each other for a week.'

Monday May 30th, 1955

'At last I have finished reading the book on flying saucers I borrowed from the chapel library. The conclusion the author arrives at is: the saucers come from Mars, they are manned by insects - possibly bees which have been found to be capable of communicating with each other - hypothetically a mark of intelligence; they come to earth beacuse they fear that we will start a chain reaction with one of our atom bombs that will blow the earth to dust and, thus, fill the atmosphere with a dense cloud of particles that will shut off the precious though small amount of sunshine that Mars receives.

By studying us, the bees hope to gauge their chances of survival by us not setting off an atom bomb.

The bees are supposed to build their machines by bending quartz crystals, which thus generate electricity and grow larger if fed upon quartz powder. The whole book is a fascinating hypothesis. I enjoyed it; and might add: "What is in the realm of imagination is within the realm of possibility."'

Thursday 23rd June, 1955

'This afternoon I met Brenda in town and we then invaded a hairdressing salon, whose entrance is situated in a dingy cellar. Brenda trotted up some well-carpeted stairs and entered an office to complain about the way her hair was done. Of course there were protests.

"But, madam, Mr Jacquis comes from London."'

"So do I," responded Brenda.

And so Cockney wit won the day and the "man from London" has promised to do Brenda's hair again..

It is a strange experience reading Derek's first diary. Many of the familiar elements are there: the irrelevant anecdotes, millenarist allusions and moments of self-doubt. But this is a young man's journal - more passionate and less Pooterish than the middle-aged Derek.

Derek is rather hazy about about what he wants from the future, but he is quite certain that he wants to marry Brenda, even if their courtship appears to have been a rocky one at times.

Two years later, Derek gets his girl and it is heartbreaking to contrast the optimism and hope of the young married couple with the diaries from the 1980s, when Derek and Brenda's relationship appears to have been ground down by ill fortune and difficult circumstances.

But it is easy to be positive and optimistic when you are 22, and aren't weighed down by the ballast of wrong decisions, squandered opportunities and plain bad luck. The real challenge comes later, when you are faced with the choice between descending into bitterness and self-pity, or making the best out of what life has dealt you.

Derek clearly picked the latter path, finding fulfillment in the simple pleasures of the home and the fellowship of his local Mormon church. When adversity struck, his saving grace was a sense of humour and, probably, a fatalistic belief that all events were part of a divine plan.

Perhaps Derek was right.

By now, his diaries should be decomposing on a landfill site. Instead, Derek now enjoys a worldwide audience.

Derek would cite divine intervention, but I want to know more about those Martian bees first.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Everything Must Go

Warning! Unless you're particularly interested in the book trade, this is a long, dull post. If you are particularly interested in the book trade, then you probably already know this...

I remember visiting the first UK branch of Borders, back in the late 90s and thinking that I had seen the future.

Compared to the average Waterstone's, it was bright and airy, with an exciting range of products (I was particularly impressed by the listening posts for CDs). The buzzword in those days was "lifestyle" and the whole ethos of Borders was to create a place where people could "hang out", meeting friends for a coffee, going to a poetry reading or listening to the latest World Music CDs.

A bit like being in an episode of "Friends".

Like most people, I had no idea that I was watching a firework in its final stage, releasing one last spectacular volley of flares. The new Borders store turned out to be one of the last examples of a type of retailing - large stores with huge stockholdings - that would shortly become an anachronism. Once broadband was introduced, internet shopping quickly reached the tipping point and those lovely CD listening posts suddenly seemed ridiculously antiquated.

I was completely wrong about Borders, but I was right about the internet. In 1997, during a drink with a senior figure in Ottakar's (not James Heneage, I hasten to add), I said that it was imperative that we launched an internet site as quickly as possible. He snorted and took great delight in telling me that only 1.5% of the population shopped online and that the figure would only change slowly over time, as most people still weren't comfortable with computers. I wish we'd bet money on it.

Over a decade later, the book chains all appear to be on the brink of collapse. In the USA, Borders are about to go bankrupt and whilst some commentators have blamed years of mismanagement, the truth is that they have merely accelerated the chain's inevitable demise.

Barnes and Noble had a strong management team and embraced the digital age, but it still wasn't enough. Recently Leonard Riggio, the founder of Barnes and Noble, joked "Sometimes I want to shoot myself in the morning."

On this side of the Atlantic, British Bookshops have just gone bust and the management team of Waterstone's have been congratulating themselves for only losing 0.4% in last year's like for like sales.

Given the overall decline in high street sales, -0.4% looks quite promising - certainly much better than its ailing parent company, HMV. But considering that Borders UK ceased trading at the beginning of 2010, it's a pretty dismal result. Waterstone's should have grabbed enough of the Borders market share to come up with some positive figures.

Now that Waterstone's is the last man standing out of the high street bookselling chains, it can only survive by closing its loss-making stores (of which there are a growing number). 20 have already been ear-marked, but I suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg (particularly if HMV are forced to sell the chain).

Nice poster, shame about the dumbed-down text. And where are the books?

It's not all bad news for Waterstone's. They still have a significant share of the UK market and there is a core of thriving, profitable stores that have many years left in them if they can free themselves from the shackles of HMV and return to their roots. But overall, I can't help feeling that the age of the chain booksellers was just a brief interlude in the long history of bookselling.

In an article I read recently, someone neatly summed-up the problems facing the bookseller:

The Seven Deadly Paradoxes of Bookselling:

1. The better the bookseller and the more representative their stock, the less chance they have of selling it.

2. The harder a book is to sell, the smaller is their reward for selling it.

3. (The converse, which is more deadly than it first appears.) The easier the book to sell, the greater the reward.

4. The sooner they sell their stock, the longer they must wait before they can replace it on the same terms.

5. In buying the season's new books for stock they must recognize at sight and sometimes at the sight of the jacket only - the merits of their contents.

6. Readers are increasing; purchases are dwindling.

7. The window is their most valuable, and almost their only, advertisement; to be effective it must be in the main part of the town. Few can afford that position.

You may be surprised to learn that these words were written 75 years ago, by Basil Blackwell in a title called "The Book World - a New Survey". Conditions may have changed since 1935 (in Blackwell's day, the enemy was the public library), but the basic principles are the same: sales can rise or fall; rents only go up.

Until recently, it looked as if it was a straightforward battle, with the high street chains losing a war of attrition against the supermarkets and internet booksellers. But just as we were adjusting to the new bookselling landscape, the Kindle suddenly appeared on the scene, shortly followed by the Sony e-Reader.

A couple of years ago I was congratulating myself for swapping high street bookselling for the internet. Little did I know how soon the goalposts were going to move again.

Keen to reduce their warehousing costs and stay one step ahead of the competition, Amazon have been aggressively promoting the Kindle. When e-books started to appear on Amazon's bestseller charts, they were accused of manipulating the figures to stimulate demand. But according to Jeff Bezos, millions of people now own Kindles and the demand is growing by the day, with Amazon selling around three in every four e-books.

In the UK alone, it is estimated that several hundred thousand people received Kindles for Christmas, so the tipping point has definitely been reached, but where does that leave the rest of the book trade?

This post is all ready far too long, so I'll be brief. Here are, in my opinion, the main issues facing the book trade today:
  • The decline of the high street chains will be accelerated by the advent of the e-book. However not all book formats lend themselves to the Kindle, or even the i-Pad. Children's books will contiue to thrive on the printed page, particularly books for young children. Paperback sales will dip sharply, but there will still be a market for titles with high production values. Bricks and mortar booksellers who can adapt to these niche markets stand more chance of surviving.
  • If the high street chains collapse, then publishers will find it increasingly harder to develop and promote the next generation of authors. Fewer titles will be published and first-time novelists will struggle more than ever.
  • Amazon are taking a risk with the Kindle. If the encoding of e-books is cracked, they could be downloaded and shared as easily as MP3s. If that happens, then publishers, agents, booksellers and authors will see a substantial loss of income.
  • With the advent of the i-Pad and its inevitable imitators, why would anyone want to buy a device that only reads books?
Where will it all end? Basil Blackwell saw difficult times ahead in 1935, but the Penguin paperback made reading more popular than ever. I suppose that ultimately, what matters is not where we get our books, or what format they're in, but the fact that we read.

BREAKING NEWS... In the three days since I posted this, Borders are trying to negotiate a $500,000,000 refinacing package and Amazon have announced that Kindle sales are now only 20% lower than their paperback sales. Also Waterstone's have asked publishers to reduce scale-down the new title orders and their head of e-commerce has resigned.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

January's Bookmarks

This month has been a fairly poor one, as far as work is concerned. Most of my stock has come from a library clearance sale and the gems appear to have been weeded-out. However, a few curious photographs have managed to slip through the net.

This wonderful street scene is from the turn of the last century, but you'll have to click on the image to fully appreciate it. When I first saw the photo, it looked unsettlingly familiar, then I discovered that it was of Station Road, Hampton, near where I grew up.

Most of the buildings in Teddington and Hampton sprang up in the 1880s and 90s, during the huge expansion of the London suburbs. Today, the streets look remarkably unchanged, with long rows of Victorian semi-detached houses. The few 20th century buildings were generally built to fill the gaps left by the Luftwaffe.

Here's another town that has changed very little:

On the reverse of the postcard, which has a postmark dated 4PM - SP 7 - 09, I found some more information about "Mrs Wakefield":

I think I might incorporate the naughty Mrs Wakefield into my five-year-old son's bedtime story routine.

This gentleman appears to be wearing a large flower in his buttonhole. Is he off to a wedding?

I'd also like to know more about the next two photos. Is it the same man in both pictures?

At first glance, I'd say they were different men, but it's amazing what a receding hairline and a luxuriant moustache can do to add a certain gravitas. Fighting in the First World War probably added a few years too.

Assuming that the photographer is her husband (or boyfriend), this photograph is curiously touching. My mother would probably say something about "mutton dressed up as lamb", but I like that fact that the woman seems at ease with herself and is having fun.

My father used to do of cycling and youth hostelling in his 20s and was always telling me what fun it was, but there must be easier ways to get girls into bed.

Two notable worthies, these photos were found in a crumbling, leather double frame. Sadly there were no clues to their identity.

Finally, my favourite book from last week:

Ideal gift? For who? Presumably someone you dislike, as I can't think of a more depressing present.

The title doesn't help. Why can't it be "Enjoying Retirement", with the gentleman on the front happily pruning some roses or playing with a train set?

On the other hand, given the grim economic forecasts for the pensions industry, perhaps those Saga catalogues that feature white-haired people enjoying exotic cruises and exhausting multi-city intineraries, will soon be a thing of the past.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Origins of Derek - Part One

About a year ago, a strange consignment of books turned up at work, stored in a large cage - the type that Hannibal Lecter was incarcerated in during the opening scenes of 'Silence of the Lambs'. Within the hour, someone from the warehouse marched up to my desk and told me that I needed to sort through the stock that day or else it would be thrown away.

I don't like going down to the warehouse. My workplace is like H.G. Wells' 'Time Machine', with the Eloi working in comfortable, air conditioned offices, whilst the Morlocks occupy a noisy, dark, subterranean complex, full of large machines. I feel guilty that I have a comfortable swivel chair and can come and go as I please without clocking in, but the survival instinct is even stronger.

I promptly donned a hi-vis jacket and made sure that I was armed with a bright light (flaming torches set off the smoke alarms).

The selection of books ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. There were many historical and literary titles in immaculate condition, but also a number of bizarre books published by small presses, most of which asserted that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. One claimed to have conclusive evidence that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.

At the time, I had no idea that I was looking at Derek's book collection.

I wish I'd had more time to peruse Derek's library, but we were under pressure to clear the space as quickly as possible and had to make snap decisions about what to keep. Towards the bottom of the cage, someone found a box full of foolscap folders and called me over to have a look. To my amazement, there were thousands of pages of typed and handwritten A4 sheets, plus a few exercise books - a diary of someone's entire adult life, spanning a period from the early 1950s through to the 1990s.

"Chuck it?" I was asked. Horrified, I shook my head and said that I needed to know more about the contents. They were sent up to a storage are in the warehouse, where I thought that the diaries would be safe, but a few hours later I noticed that a box was missing. I quickly moved the remains and took them to my office.

Later, during a quiet moment, I started to read the contents and realised that I had found something wonderful. But what should I do with Derek's diaries? Simply keeping them wasn't much better then throwing them away. These diaries were written to be read.

In my last entry, I wrote about the moral dilemmas of blogging and in the case of Derek's diaries, I have often wondered about the ethics of publishing someone's private papers. However, I feel quite certain that faced with a choice between seeing his life's work pulped or having extracts published on the internet, Derek would have chosen the latter.

But rather than speculate, let's hear from Derek himself. In 1980, he typed up his first journal from 1955, adding footnotes and this telling preface:

"My early journals, and the later one some people might declare, make me squirm when I read them now. They are full of self-pity, mawkish sentiment, selfish opinions, and abysmal writing. Were it not that I truly believe that "the child is the father of the man", in that the person I am now is a sort on omnibus composed of many pieces bought forward from that stumbling past, I would confine those journals to the fire without any compunction. But we all of us like to brood upon beginnings, seeds sown, passions formed, the foundations of character and personality, and I am no exception to that rule.

When I am going through a period of self-examination, especially my faults, I strive to trace what I find within my inner depths to original seeds. This is profitable in conveying lessons to others. Knowledge by experience is of far more value than any wisdom gained from books. So, though my journals are full of many weaknesses, perhaps there are unobserved lessons in them that will help others, particularly my posterity in the days that lie ahead."

Posterity is a word that Derek uses frequently, but it isn't a reference to a nebulous collection of people in the future. For Derek, posterity means his descendants:

"As to that posterity, I hope they will not think me the worst of their ancestors. I am arrogant; but I see my arrogance and am always quickly repentant of it. I am foolish, too. By this I mean that I have a sense of humour that often gets out of hand and manifests itself in stupid speeches and foolish remarks, many of the out of place. On occasion I also play practical jokes, many of them of a literary ilk. At the same time it is a sense of humour that has enabled me to pass through many dark places and to observe the desparate side of funny situations.

If any legend goes down to my posterity concerning the man I was, it may well be the fact that I loved to collect books, even to the detriment of the welfare of my family on occasion. At the present time I have about four thousand volumes about me; I cannot pass a bookshop without pausing to browse."

I'm glad that Derek never knew that his 'posterity' would one day consign his diaries and the beloved book collection to oblivion.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

And Lead Us Not Into Temptation...

In my last post, which was about the use of business jargon, Mrs Trefusis commented with this sound piece of advice:

'My job is full of vile, lazy business-speak, and reading a document full of it makes a part of my soul shrivel and die, so I resolved to dip into the KJV whenever a particularly horrid example lands on my desk.'

I couldn't agree more. Compare the poetry of "For now we see through a glass, darkly" to the functional prose of the Good News Bible's "What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror".

Obviously there are sound theological reasons why new versions of the Bible are printed, but from a literary point of view they are usually disappointing. I'd like to see a Seamus Heaney version.

By coincidence, later that day, the BBC website published this fascinating article on the King James Version of the Bible and how it has endured to the present day. It included this list of 10 phrases still in common usage, 400 years on:

  • Turned the world upside down Acts 17:6
  • God forbid Romans 3:4
  • Take root 2 Kings 19:30
  • The powers that be Romans 13:1
  • Filthy lucre 1 Timothy 3:3
  • No peace for the wicked Isaiah 57: 21
  • A fly in the ointment Ecclesiastes 10:1
  • Wheels within wheels Ezekiel 10:10
  • The blind leading the blind Matthew 15:13
  • Feet of clay Daniel 2:33

Perhaps some people would also like to remind me of another quote from the King James Bible:

"For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

This is a reference to my last post, which was sponsored by the British Library, via a company called Ebuzzing. Apparently, it has caused concern in some quarters that I have crossed the line and monetised (now there's an ugly word) my blog.

Frankly, I'd love to be able to earn a bit of cash from blogging. Last September I ran out of money and got to the stage where I was emptying out jam jars of coins and rifling through the pockets of old jackets looking for cash, just so that I would be able to buy food. So when emails arrived offering me cash or free products if I wrote a promotional blog post, I was sorely tempted.

However, I have always declined because a blog should always be about belief and passion, independent of any commercial agenda. Compromise that integrity and people will soon vote with their feet.

Then, last week, temptation appeared in the form of a very reasonable email which offered a small payment in return for a promotional post for a client. The email promised that I would have complete editorial freedom (although the client reserves the right not to publish) and that I should make it clear that the post was sponsored. It was a disarmingly clever email.

I was about to delete the message, but curiosity got the better of me. Who was the client?

When I discovered that it was the British Library, I couldn't believe my luck. I was expecting some sort of corporation. Instead, I was being asked to promote an exhibition that I would have gladly written about anyway.

As far as I was concerned, the acid test would be whether I could say what I liked, so I wrote a post about business jargon, mentioning the exhibition at the end. I had decided that I wouldn't accept any editorial changes to the content and if the post was rejected, that was that.

The post was accepted. No changes were required and I felt that my criteria were met, but nevertheless, I wonder if I have crossed a line? And where do we draw that line? Free books? Links to Amazon? Invitations to book launches? Promoting books by friends?

If I ever want to see the money, I apparently have to write one or two more sponsored posts and I doubt if I'll ever be offered another client as squeaky clean as the British Library, so my brief flirtation with monetising may have been a bit of a flop. However, I enjoyed writing the post and really appreciated the range of comments, so it was worth doing.

Monday, January 17, 2011

English as a Foreign Language

British Library

British Library

Sponsored Post

Five years ago, I was happily managing a branch of Ottakar's Bookstores in a sleepy coastal town in southern England. It wasn't the most exciting place to run a bookshop, but I worked with some lovely people and my employers were like-minded people who hated business jargon and viewed my personal quirks as an asset rather than a threat.

A few months later, Ottakar's was bought by HMV, who owned the Waterstone's bookshop chain and, almost overnight, the culture of the business changed.

What alarmed me most of all wasn't the changes in working practices or even the new restrictions on local autonomy, but the use of language. In Ottakar's, anyone who used jargon was ridiculed. In Waterstone's, good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon words like old, new and closing down were replaced with legacy, conversion and exiting. When I had problems with a stock-management system that didn't really work, I was told that I needed to upskill.

I quickly discovered that reflection was a bad thing. We needed to be continually going forward and it wasn't enough to just do things - we had to ensure that we were actioning them. However, if opportunities presented themselves, we were encouraged to take advantage of any easy wins.

If we were presented with a rather challenging spreadsheet full of sales figures, we were encouraged to drill down and identify any issues. If there were issues that were beyond our control, we were encouraged to escalate them to a higher level. On the few occasions that anyone owned up to making a mistake, it was announced that learnings had been made. If I dared to make joke about this in meetings, I realised that I was surrounded by people with no sense of humour. I had to go.

In general, I have found that people use jargon to either obfuscate the truth or make perfectly simple things seem terribly serious and important. Regimes like jargon.

But if we're aware of our language and why it is in a constant state of flux, it is harder for the dictators to insist that their words belong to some long-established immutable truth. This is why I was delighted to accept an invitation from the British Library to do a sponsored post about a new exhibition called "Evolving English".

Evolving English is a free exhibition which is open until April 3rd this year and includes the only surviving manuscript of "Beowulf", the Shakespeare Quartos, Dr Johnson's dictionary and a variety of examples of different uses of English, including early advertising campaigns, text messages, comics, children's recordings, web pages, lists of slang and examples of newspapers from around the world.

There are also some wonderful dialect recordings, which I have already mentioned in this previous post.

If you live too far away to visit the Evolving English exhibition, there are opportunities to join in online. First, there is this quiz, which isn't as easy as I thought. Second, you can participate in the Tweetosphere (you heard it here first) #evolvingenglish.

If you are lucky enough to visit the exhibition, before April 3rd, you can actually become part of the collection by reading an extract from Mr Tickle. This will be kept as part of an archive to demonstrate what accents were like in 2010. I wish that a similar experiment could have been conducted 100 years ago, as I suspect that accents and word usage are in an even greater state of flux than we realise.

I'm delighted that an exhibition like this is taking place, because as long as we are of what's happening to our language, we can stop others from misusing it.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Act of Faith

Perhaps I'm being over-sensitive, but in general I avoid telling people that I write a blog. When I have told anyone, I feel very uncomfortable, as if I've just announced an interest in Dungeons and Dragons, or a penchant for Genesis.

Most people I tell assume that I'm a frustrated writer, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have occasionally harboured musical ambitions but never literary ones, thanks to two decades of bookselling.

When I joined the original Waterstone's (which was still run by Tim Waterstone) as a lowly bookseller, one of my jobs involved sitting in a dark cupboard, tearing up books. Most of these books were unsold first novels, which the publisher had deemed worthless. Rather than pay for the whole book to be returned, it was agreed that it would be more cost effective to just tear off the front covers and return them in a jiffy bag.

I remember sitting on a kickstool, with a black bin liner between my legs, throwing away novels that had often taken years to write. Some of them looked very good, but for some indefinable reason - a lack of reviews, poor marketing or an off-putting blurb - the books hadn't sold.

There was one particular new novel that I really liked. I had read a proof copy and expected the book to attract a lot of broadsheet reviews, but it was published almost by stealth and I don't remember selling a single copy. A few months later, the author committed suicide.

Whenever I have a fleeting urge to start writing a book, I think of that dark cupboard and the thousands of unsold books I've returned to publishers over the years.

I was reminded of this when, last week, we received a consignment of discontinued stock from Belfast's public libraries. Most of the books were popular novels published between the 1950s and 70s. It was like looking at a collection of books from a parallel universe. I didn't recognise a single name.

Do any of these authors ring a bell?

Vian Smith
Dave Wallis
John Verney
Kathleen Sully
George Shipway
Robin White
Doreen Wallace
Frederic Wakeman
Dal Stivens
Herbert Simmons
Jayne Viney
Joyce Porter
Gerda Rhoads
Malissa Redhead
Marshall Pugh
Clare Simon
John Pollock
Simon Waldron
Katharine Sim
Grace Phipps

I haven't come across modern editions of works by any of these writers and over half of them have no Wikipedia entries. It's as if they never existed.

Seeing so many forgotten books could have been a depressing experience, but does every novel have to be written for posterity? In their time, these authors were rated highly enough to be published and enjoyed a wide readership, which is all any aspiring writer can hope for.

Very few women read 'The Women's Room' these days and I doubt whether many will read 'Bridget Jones's Diary' in 20 years, but that doesn't diminish the impact these books had in their day.

By the time I'd finished wading through box after box of obscure novels, I felt amazed, but also grateful, that people wrote and published books at all. It seemed an act of faith that flew in the face of reason, and we are all better for it.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Between the Wars

Here is a completely random selection of things that caught my eye at work last week. There isn't any particular theme linking these items, except that they all come from period between Armistice Day and the end of the Second World War.

This photo was found in a 1939 Barbara Cartland novel. These days, the Iron Cross inspires a reaction similar to the swastika, but we mustn't forget that once it was merely an innocent symbol of Prussian militarism.

This beautiful bookplate comes from a huge collection of novels that once belonged to Belfast's public libraries. I hadn't heard of most of the books. Indeed, when I first opened the box, it looked as if the contents had come from a parallel universe (I shall have to write a blog post on these titles).

Libraries are, of course, very much in the news at the moment, thanks to the Government's spending review. Everyone likes libraries, even if we don't always use them. Libraries are the hallmark of a civilised society, so why are they being threatened with such drastic cuts?

I has assumed that public libraries were very expensive to maintain, but not so, argues Joanna Trollope in yesterday's Guardian newspaper. Her local county council's libraries account for a mere 1.45% of the annual budget, but in spite of this, they are still being cut by more than 50%.

Andrew Carnegie must be turning in his grave.

Another attractive bookplate. I like the idea of the Seafarers Education Association and can imagine lots of sailors puffing away at their pipes, being lectured on the finer points of Renaissance art.

There isn't much to say about this, except that it has a very attractive typeface, particularly the big As and Os.

This photo fell out of a copy of "The Hound of Death" by James Barlow.

I found this striking colour plate by Dodo Adler in a 1940s book called "Fairy Tales from the Balkans". Surprisingly, the book isn't even worth a tenner.

I had no idea where this is, but I guessed that it would be somewhere like Torquay and typed the name into Google images. Three seconds later, my theory was confirmed with this photo of modern-day Torquay:

If you're not from the UK and haven't heard of Torquay, it is part of the "English Riviera" (not quite an oxymoron, but it certainly doesn't have the same ring as French Riviera) and was the setting for Fawlty Towers. A lot of people retire there.

The picture of the harbour comes from a 1920s album of photographs that feature people enjoying themselves in Torquay and Dartmoor.

The album doesn't have many images that are worth posting, but I quite like this:

I would love to know who these people were and what their connection was. The other photos feature games of tennis, trips to Dartmoor and clifftop walks. It all looks very appealing.

The album also includes this picture, from the days when the Royal Navy was the largest in the world:

Today, this probably is the Royal Navy. But there's more to life than ruling the waves.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Attack of the Space Hermaphrodites

Last week I discovered this wonderful website, dedicated to some of the worst films ever made. I had no idea that there were films called Attack of the Giant Leeches or Mars Needs Women, so I decided to try a couple and see just how dreadful they were.

The first movie I watched was a 1960s Italian science fiction film called I Criminali della Galassia (Criminals of the Galaxy), which was dubbed into English and released as Wild Wild Planet.

Frankly, the phrase "1960s Italian science fiction" is more than enough to make me want to watch a film, particularly given that the Anglo-American vision of the future is often so dull.

Would you really want to live in the dreary, politically correct universe of Captain Jean-Luc Picard or 2001: A Space Odyssey, when there are alternatives like this:

I've no idea what this movie is about. Admittedly I'd had a couple a drinks when I watched Wild Wild Planet, but even if I'd been stone cold sober with a can of Red Bull and Mark Kermode sitting next to me, I'd be none the wiser. It's an utterly mad film.

From what I could glean, Wild Wild Planet is about a series of kidnappings committed by attractive young women who are assisted by bald hermaphrodites in black leather coats and dark glasses. The victims are instantly shrunk to a fifth of their normal size so that they can be conveniently transported in a suitcase. They are then taken to another planet, where a mad scientist restores the victims to their normal size, then grafts them onto the body of someone of the opposite sex to create a new, super-race.

This scene gives you the gist of it:

As you can see, the special effects are in a class of their own. I rather like the fashions, particularly the fascisti black coats and dark glasses. Who says bald men aren't sexy?

There are many reasons for watching films like Wild Wild Planet, but what particularly appeals to me is how much it tells you about the zeitgeist of mid-1960s Italy. This film is the product of an age in which Modernism was still in the ascendancy and people genuinely believed that they were on the brink of a Space Age.

Like most popular science fiction films, the Wild Wild Planet's vision of the future is always an ├╝ber-present, rather than a bold, radically different vision of society; so it's mini skirts a go-go and lots of patronising men.

It's strange how bad films can be so depressing when they're contemporary, but enjoyable when they're a few decades old. I suppose it's because we know that these films are just aberrations, rather than harbingers of the end of Western civilisation.

Wild Wild Planet may be a dreadful movie, but it looks comparatively sensible compared to this absurd film:

I don't know where to begin with Zeta One. It is possibly the worst British film ever made and it comes as no surprise to learn that the director Michael Cort didn't work again.

There are two excellent articles (here and here) that give a summary of the plot, which appears to involve a battle between topless women from another planet and James Robertson Justice (aided by Charles Hawtrey).

There is also a secret agent called James Word, whose role never seems to be clearly defined. However, he seems to be enjoying himself:

The climax of Zeta One involves a battle between the topless warriors and a group of Scottish gamekeepers. This must be one of the most ridiculous things I've ever seen:

What does Zeta One tell us about 1969? First, that it was possible to conceive and produce a film as ridiculous as this without being sectioned under the 1963 Mental Health Act. Second, that in the wake of the famous Lady Chatterley trial, our popular culture was obsessed with sex.

This strange brand of titillating sauciness continued right through the 70s, with plenty of superfluous nudity in films, book covers and record sleeves.

Then, of course, in the early 80s, it all changed. The advent of the VCR meant that titillation was replaced by genuine pornography. Also, when AIDS first entered the public consciousness with photos of the dying Rock Hudson, sexual promiscuity no longer seemed so appealing.

The final nail in the coffin was probably the "New Conservatism" of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

It has been said that if you really want to capture the flavour of a particular period, a second-rate crime novel is far better than a classic. I'm not sure if the same rule always applies to films (is Zeta One more authentically 60s than Alfie?).

I think I'll have to do some more research.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


One of the best selling humour titles of the last decade has been Ricky Gervais's Flanimals series. I've never quite seen the appeal of these books and when I was first shown a rough copy by the publisher, I was convinced that it would be a flop.

How wrong I was.

Flanimals is now being turned into a $50,000,000 Hollywood film, with Gervais as the star and the books are a permanent stock item in every humour section. But last summer, the whole franchise was threatened by a High Court writ.

The writ was issued by John Savage, a self-published author, who believes that Flanimals was plagiarised from a book that he'd published four years earlier, called "Captain Pottie’s Wildlife Encyclopaedia".

Here is an example from John Savage's book:

And here's a page from Flanimals:

Is this evidence of plagiarism, or two individuals thinking along parallel lines?

John Savage is convinced that it's the former and in addition to receiving damages for "significant financial hardship and loss", he also wants every remaining book in the Flanimals series to be pulped - a rather draconian measure.

Ricky Gervais claims that the books date back to his teenage years, when he drew imaginary creatures to entertain his nephew.

Accusations of plagiarism aren't uncommon (as J.K.Rowling will testify). Some of the litigants are chancers trying their luck; a few are barking mad (a friend of mine who worked at Book Trust regularly received angry letters from a man who was certain that he was the author of Jonathan Coe's "What a Carve Up!"), whilst others are genuinely convinced that their ideas have been stolen.

I've no idea what category John Savage falls into, but the similarities between Captain Pootie and Flanimals can't be completely dismissed.

But wait! I have another piece of evidence, which I found a few days ago:

This is "Animal Land", which was published in New York by Dutton in 1897. I found this book a few days ago and as soon as I opened it, I was struck by its remarkable similarities with Flanimals.

Here are some examples:

It's uncanny.

Animal Land
was conceived by the four-year-old Sybil Corbet, with illustrations by her mother, Katherine. There is also a hilarious introduction by the Scots literary critic Andrew Lang, which is written in a deliberately po-faced style, as if he is presenting a work of serious scholarship:

"Our author owes nothing, I conceive, to her literary predecessors. If she follows any one it is Mr Lear, the creator of the Quangle wangle and of the Yonghi Bonghi Bo. On the habits of these creatures, especially on the sources of their food supply, Mr Lear says little. But it is obvious that the nutriment of the fauna of her fancy preoccupies our author..."

The discovery of this long-forgotten book changes everything. Whilst it's entirely possible that Ricky Gervaise and/or John Savage might have plagiarised this obscure Victorian title, I'm more inclined to think that Animal Land clearly shows that there are a lot of people out there who are amused by imaginary creatures.

I remember my oldest son making up Pokemon characters when he was four or five, dictating long passages to me that made no sense at all: "This is Mitibar. He has keemoes and cheepas and fires wellumseems..." It's not just Messrs Savage and Gervais who have a fertile imagination.

The discovery of Animal Land has made me realise just what a minefield the whole issue of copyright and intellectual property is. How do we know whether an idea is original or not? And in the case of Joanna Rowling, is it reasonable to expect her to write the Harry Potter books without betraying any influence of the hundreds of stories she devoured as a young girl? We can point out the similarities between Rowling's Platform 9 and 3/4 and Eva Ibbotson's "Secret of Platform 13", but is this plagiarism or simply being influenced?

I'm pretty sure that Harry Hill pinched a joke from me, but I don't think for one minute that it was intentional. Our ideas are the sum total of everything we experience and it's all to easy for experiences to sink down into the murky depths of the subconscious, only to reappear in the fraudulent guise of an original thought. We are also the product of a culture and we shouldn't be too surprised when two people come up with the same idea.

Having said that, I'm completely baffled by the popularity of any book that features made-up animals. Where's the joke? Anyone can make up a creature with a silly name that likes eating something improbable like tarpaulin and traffic cones. In the unlikely event that John Savage wins his case and every remaining copy of Flanimals is pulped, I will be delighted.

(P.S. - As far as I know, Animal Land is out of copyright, if any enterprising publisher wants to cash-in on the forthcoming Flanimals movie.)